Christian Stewardship - A Defined Step Forward
Cheyanne Welch and Dr. Austin Mardon
Science and religion have long been considered relatively distant fields. Until the 1960s, people had never even considered them to be remotely relatable. Lynn White’s famous thesis in 1967 on the origin of our current ecological crisis suggests that Christianity is ultimately responsible for the dire state of our planet, noting: “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”. The thesis unleashed a firestorm through the academic and theological worlds that led to various events such as Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim’s Series Forward conferences, which discussed the boundaries and benefits one can find when relating the two fields. From all these events, three major ethics emerged: Christian Stewardship, Ecojustice, and Creation-Spirituality. In this brief paper, the fundamentals, benefits, and limitations of the Christian Stewardship ethic will be discussed.
The theological-based environmental ethic known as Christian Stewardship is focused on the fundamental Christian value of land caretaking. Lynn White suggested that we need to discover an “alternative Christian view” that reconsiders and emphasizes the value of nature. Christian Stewardship seeks to address the question of what it is about humans that makes us want to dominate nature. Christian Stewardship’s answer: ignorance.
The ethic itself focuses on a largely evangelical Christian interpretation of the Biblical mandate to care for our earth, called ‘stewardship’. It frames our actions as contributing to good or poor stewardship of the earth. Any activity that harms or destroys nature, or that denies others in need access to God’s creation, is considered a sin or immoral. Christian scholar William Byron defines unethical stewards as those who enrich themselves with what has been entrusted at the expense of those for whom the trust is held (including future generations) and those in need. The safekeeping of the land is an order by God that must be obeyed. Byron also suggests that humans have no prior claim to the land and therefore we must be grateful to God for this gift. It is a duty to care for this gift, especially as we owe God for creating humanity. By disobeying God and being poor stewards, people risk losing eternal salvation — a dire situation for any religious follower.
Christian Stewardship activists attempt to address ignorance of this God-given, environmental stewardship mandate. They believe that if Christians are made aware of humanity’s mandate through education, they will automatically protect the environment. As mentioned by Laurel Kearns, this ethic is generally applied by church groups who choose to focus on one or a few specific issues that affect their locality. Some examples may include agricultural communities choosing to apply holistic management practices, or fishing communities attempting to control yields. Collectively, these groups could form a powerful movement to change values within the theological community, which could ripple out to change global perspectives and begin a process of resolving our climate crisis.
This ethic assists academics with understanding environmental issues from a Christian perspective as it directly connects Biblical mandates to real-world application. It frames good environmental stewardship to be a duty of all Christians. There is strong motivation to obey as failing to perform these duties risks salvation. It provides a theological reason for personal motivation—avoidance of shame and, ultimately, eternal death. It uses realistic dialogue and conversations that would be of interest to other Christians, especially those already interested in addressing environmental problems. This can lead to influencing peers for a collective push towards good stewardship.
In applying this ethic, White suggested that we cannot begin to address our ecological crisis until the view of nature existing to serve humanity is rejected and a new value system is adopted. The Christian Stewardship ethic itself revolves around nature’s creation by God, and humanity’s duty to preserve it. We have a debt to God, as He created us for nothing in return. This was described by Byron as a 1:0 relationship between humans and nature, a manifestation of the Divine. To be good stewards and good Christians, humans must relate to nature on a 0:0 basis, as we have both been created by God and are therefore equal. Christian Stewardship partly fulfills White and Byron’s suggestions, in that humanity will serve nature, caring for it, and therefore gain some measure of equality between humans and nature.
This ethic is the only environmental theological ethic that suggests actual avenues to address problems, making it unique. It frames the current environmental situation as a result of our long-term neglectful stewardship and current everyday actions. It is community-driven, making it more effective and supportive for people who are having difficulties understanding or following the ethical guidelines; in general, people are more likely to commit to an action if their community has expectations of them. This is why groups such as Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, and fitness groups are so successful: they have a set of expectations for individuals, and members do not enjoy failing those expectations, especially when witnessed by peers. Collective participation in environmental preservation turns individual ecological actions into a community activity, increasing feelings of belonging and reinforcing community values and the desire to engage in “good stewardship”. Environmental activist Wendell Berry states that developing a collectively strong agricultural community is directly linked with effective agricultural stewardship. “People are joined to the land by work. Land, work, people and community are all comprehended in the idea of culture…” Strong steward communities will ultimately reinforce stewardship values in the surrounding areas and in future generations, leading to integration of environmental stewardship into the collective culture.
Although perhaps surprising, Christian Stewardship is one of the few ethics that may be able to use science as a support. Although not central to the ethic itself, science is used as a primary support for many environmental issues outside of theology and is able to reach a large audience. Traditionally, this has angered many conservative evangelical Christians due to tense history with evolutionists; however, using science to create specific ‘stewardship’ instructions results in reaching a broader audience of both Christians and non-Christians. As Lynn White stated, “modern science is an extrapolation of natural theology…and modern technology…can be explained as an occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful master over, nature.” Integrating theology and environmental science may be helpful in reinforcing the stewardship mandate given by God, although this approach may not yet be formally considered by Christian Stewardship activists. In 1996, however, the Evangelicals for Social Action group protested amendments to the Endangered Species Act, effectively using current scientific data on animal endangerment to form a base for their theologically driven action. A future example may be using data from overfishing to convince fishermen of their poor ocean stewardship or using evidence of aquifer depletion to advocate for greener cities.
The main limitation of the Christian Stewardship ethic is its inability to attract a variety of Christian and non-Christian groups. The main followers of this ethic tend to be fundamental evangelical Christians and hence it has little audience outside of North America, with some exceptions such as the global Seventh-Day Adventist church.
Additionally, Christian Stewardship is limited in that it frames failure to address environmental issues as sinful. It can fail to change people’s opinions in a way that triggers positive actions as its focus is largely on halting negative actions. It offers incentive for people to stop harmful actions, such as farmers allowing agricultural run-off in streams, by informing them of how this makes them poor stewards, resulting in the loss of salvation. It does not cause them to intrinsically value the environment. The only way in which it can be used to encourage positive action, rather than focussing on repercussions for negative actions, is when it is framed as helping fellow humans. For example, Chesapeake Bay farmers reduced pesticide and fertilizer use and implemented runoff controls to assist the fishermen in their community after becoming aware of the harm these practices inflicted. Likely, utilizing fear as a motivator is unsustainable in the long term. There needs to be a reconsideration of the land’s value at a spiritual level to make people want to help the land rather than simply not harm it.
Lastly, Christian Stewardship fails to define how we are good stewards. “Good” actions are not defined on nature’s terms, but rather on our terms and often with ample consideration for our own convenience and desires. Christian children may be taught to pick up litter and donate to animal welfare agencies, but not to limit single-use plastic or stop buying from cosmetic companies that employ animal testing. Clear cutting is ‘bad’ but pulling up pollinator-friendly ‘weeds’ in your yard is not. “Good stewardship” could even be defined as anything that enhances the natural beauty of God, but that could be interpreted as anything aesthetically pleasing, which supports a great deal of environmentally disastrous practices already in place like city planning and urban expansion. It is limited by its own anthropocentricity as it does not consider the value of nature outside of how humanity values it. Species are not protected because they are an equally valuable part of existence, but rather because we want to see them exist for future generations to use or enjoy and because it is part of our duty to God. Christian Stewardship does not recognize the limits of our current system as it chooses to only work within that system. It does not change the baseline valuation of the environment, but simply rewires our existing values to please God. Humanity remains superior to nature, which is entrusted to our care. We are the shepherds, and nature is our sheep. This still doesn’t truly reach the 0:0 ratio that Byron noted should be achieved.
In summary, the Christian Stewardship ethic is very effective in encouraging Christians to care about environmental issues by framing it as their duty given by God. It changes direct actions and can lead to improved stewardship of the environment. It works well in North American evangelical communities, but largely excludes other Christian groups. It is both narrowed and reinforced by its use of purely theological support. The ethic isn’t perfect as it doesn’t truly change humanity’s superiority to nature. However, with global temperatures continuing to rise and climate issues becoming increasingly important, Christian Stewardship is a defined step forward from the current uncaring attitudes.
Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in This Sacred Earth, ed. Roger Gottlieb, 1967, 6.
Coined by Laurel Kearns in 1996—Laurel Kearns, “Saving Creation,” Sociology of Religion 57(1) (1996): 55.
White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” 7.
William J Byron, “The Ethics of Stewardship.” In The Earth is the Lord’s: Essays on Stewardship, ed. Mary E. Jegen and Bruno V. Manno. Pp. 44-50, (Toronto: Paulist Press, 1978), 45.
Byron, “The Ethics of Stewardship,” 45.
Kearns, “Saving Creation,” 57.
White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” 9.
Byron, “The Ethics of Stewardship,” 47.
Author’s own experience growing up Seventh-Day Adventist Christian
Wendell Berry, “People, Land, and Community,” In Standing by Words, pp. 64-79, (Berkeley (CA): Counterpoint, 1983), 73.
White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” 7.
James Cone. “Whose Earth is it anyway?” in Earth Habitat: Eco-Injustice and the Church’s Response, ed. Dieter Hessel, pp. 23-32 Augsburg Fortress, 2001.
Laurel Kearns. “Saving Creation.” Sociology of Religion 57/1 (1996): 55-70.
Lynn White. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in This Sacred Earth, ed. Roger Gottlieb, 1967. pp. 192-201.
Mary E. Tucker and John Grim. “Series Forward,” in Christianity and Ecology, edited by Dieter Hessel and Rosemary Ruether, pp. xv-xxxii. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Wendell Berry (ch. 3) “People, Land, and Community,” In Standing by Words, pp. 64-79. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1983.
William J Byron “The Ethics of Stewardship.” In The Earth is the Lord’s: Essays on Stewardship, ed. Mary E. Jegen and Bruno V. Manno. Pp. 44-50. Toronto: Paulist Press, 1978.